Soft drinks can be found almost anywhere in the world, but nowhere are they as ubiquitous as the U.S., where 450 different types are sold and more than 2.5 million vending machines dispense sugar-sweetened beverages around the clock.
The American Beverage Association says that in 2004, 28 percent of all beverages consumed in the U.S. were carbonated soft drinks. Soda was first introduced to the public more than 200 years ago, and the bubbly drink was an instant hit.
The ability to store soft drinks for long periods of time began in earnest in 1892, with the invention of the crown cap. Home consumption then began to take off, and soda companies began to transport their products around the country.
Not Health Food
In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) generally advises a 2,000 calorie-a-day limit and no more than 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. Despite this recommendation, between 1994 and 1996 Americans were averaging about 20.5 teaspoons a day, the equivalent of 68.5 pounds of sugar a year.
Over the past 16 years, the amount of sugar in American diets has increased by 28 percent, with about a third of it coming from soft drinks. A single 12-ounce can of soda contains around 13 teaspoons of sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is sweeter than refined sugar and costs less, which helped gain it 55 percent of the sweetener market.
Some nutritionists feel that high-fructose corn syrup fails to suppress hunger feelings, leading to increased weight gain (see "Sugar or Sweetener?" Your Health, March/April 2006). Currently, 64.5 percent of adults over the age of 20 are overweight, 30.5 percent are obese and 4.7 percent are severely obese.
Dr. Sonia Caprio, a professor of pediatric endocrinology at Yale University, confirms that consumption of high-caloric beverages leads to higher rates of obesity. All sugars that rapidly metabolize are considered the worst culprits, she says, including fructose and glucose. "The reality is that there is epidemiological work done in children as well as adults that links obesity and Type 2 diabetes with the consumption of sodas," says Caprio.
Diet sodas use artificial sweeteners because they add little or no calories to the beverage. The American Beverage Association says that diet soft drinks have grown from 25.9 percent of the market in 1998 to 28.6 percent in 2005. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved four sugar substitutes for use in foods and beverages, one of which is aspartame—embroiled in controversy for more than 20 years. Aspartame tastes 200 times sweeter than sucrose but has none of the calories.
For the past 15 years, benzene has been found in soft drinks at levels higher than the legal limit. The Environmental Working Group cites FDA data showing that 19 of 24 samples of diet soda showed contamination levels of the chemical. Some samples held as many as four times the tap-water limit. Benzene, formed by a reaction of two common soft drink additives, sodium benzoate (a preservative) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), is considered a carcinogen and has been directly linked to leukemia and other cancers. This combination remains in several soft drinks, especially those featuring fruit juice or drinks fortified with vitamin C.
Natural sodas are meeting the growing market for soft drinks with reduced refined sugar content, offering many people a transition from or alternative to the mainstream drinks many of us have grown up on. Many parents, in particular, find they can placate kids hollering for soda by giving them a healthier alternative.
Cane juice is often used as an alternative soda sweetener because it is relatively unprocessed and retains a larger number of the nutrients found in sugar cane. Fructose is naturally found in fruits, so added sweeteners aren’t needed for some beverages that come from real fruit. Also, flavors are much more authentic than the soft drinks that most people are used to because real juices and natural ingredients are used.
Steaz Green Tea Soda is slightly less carbonated than traditional soft drinks but is very flavorful. The eight regular and three diet flavors are sweetened using organic evaporated cane juice. All Steaz beverages are certified USDA organic and contain no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
R.W. Knudsen fruit spritzer drinks contain only sparkling water and natural flavors and juices. Refreshingly tangy, these carbonated juice beverages are offered in 16 different flavors. Knudsen also offers five flavors of light spritzers that contain "lo han" extract, a Chinese fruit that is a natural sweetener. All of Knudsen’s products are free of artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and added sugars.
Izze offers beverages that are more heavily juice based and less carbonated. Every bottle of Izze is said to be equal to a serving of fruit, so they may be an option for youngsters who turn up their noses at the genuine article. The beverages come in seven tasty flavors and contain 100 percent pure fruit juice and sparkling water. Izze is naturally sweet and has no refined sugar or caffeine.
Santa Cruz Organic sodas are all made with organic ingredients and are sweetened using organic evaporated cane juice. The sodas come in 10 flavors, which taste like fresh fruit juice with light carbonation. Santa Cruz Organic uses 100 percent renewable energy to run its processing and bottling facilities.
WaNu beverages (owned by Vermont Base Waters) start with the company’s own purified water. The natural sodas come in seven flavors and are also sweetened using organic evaporated cane juice, with natural flavors and coloring. WaNu’s drinks tend to taste just like mainstream sodas, only slightly less carbonated (except for the maple cream flavor, which is a New England original). The company also offers sparkling water drinks, which come in six flavors and contain many of the same ingredients as the sodas.
Reed"s beverages are modeled after traditional homemade drinks that predate the bottling era. The sodas use as a guide Jamaican ginger beer, which is far less sweet with more "bite" than modern ginger ale. There are six flavors of Reed’s Brew and all of them contain sparkling filtered water, fresh ginger root and juices and spices for flavor. Five of the company’s offerings contain fructose.
Blue Sky Soda makes organic sodas and seltzer-style sparkling waters. The all-natural sodas come in 13 flavors and do contain some form of fructose or fructose corn sweetener. The sodas, in six different flavors, are sweetened with cane juice and are certified organic by Quality Assurance International. The natural seltzers contain only carbonated triple-filtered water and natural flavoring, in lemon or lime.
ERIN COUGHLIN is an E intern and natural soda fan.